Keeping Your Ground Dry

Try these basic strategies to help you keep thick sloppy spring mud at bay.

The poet E. E. Cummings rhapsodized about the season “when the world is mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.”

As a horse owner, I don’t see mud in the same positive light. If you’ve ever gotten your boot stuck while leading your horse through a paddock gate, you know what I mean. It’s hard enough to work your foot free if your horse is patient and quiet, but handling a fractious one in sticky mud can get a little dicey.

Of course, there’s more to it than your own inconvenience—it’s not too nice for your horse either: “Standing in mud can lead to a number of health problems in horses,” says Alyssa E. Warneke, DVM, of the Myhre Equine Clinic in Rochester, New Hampshire. “Parasites, bacteria, fungi and flies all thrive in mud. Prolonged mud exposure can lead to bacterial and fungal infections of the skin—like rain scald and scratches. Moreover, horses who forage in mud are predisposed to developing sand or dirt colic.” 

A horse sanding in a muddy field
Hooves can be hard on pastures, especially in the spring when the snow is melting and the ground is soft. When soils are already getting saturated with water, any hoof traffic will only make the situation worse.

Warneke notes that prolonged exposure to mud can lead to hoof conditions, such as thrush and, she says, muddy footing increases “the risk of limb injuries—sprains and strains, fractures from falling or slipping, and aggravation of joint disease.”

Getting rid of mud isn’t always easy. “It’s almost impossible to eliminate mud on a horse farm,” says Matthew Johnson, architect and owner of Equine Facility Design in Portland, Oregon, “but there’s a lot you can do to minimize it.” 

To make any progress toward reducing the muddy spaces on your property, you’ll need to first assess the factors that are turning your normal, healthy soil into thick, smelly goop.

Then, you’ll devise a strategy that focuses on three major goals: keep water from pooling in low-lying areas, maintain healthy pasture grasses, and prevent hoof traffic from compressing and tearing up vulnerable soils. Here’s what you can do. 

Rain, rain, go Away

Central to any mud management plan are steps that ensure rainwater infiltrates pastures and drains away from high-traffic areas instead of pooling. The one key thing to remember, of course, is that water will always flow downhill. Trying to stop it is like trying to change the laws of physics. We can’t. But we can divert it.

“Everyone knows to put structures like stables and arenas on the highest ground you’ve got,” says Johnson. “But, sometimes the only location is low or halfway up a hill. Or, maybe you have purchased a property with existing buildings. There are still a lot of things you can do to control runoff.” Here are some suggestions:

• Install and maintain a gutter system for all outbuildings. A four- to six-stall barn sheds up to 600 gallons of water for every inch of rain that falls, and if it’s not diverted properly, it’s going to erode your foundation. “Install gutters on every structure that has a roof,” advises Johnson. “It’s one of the simplest, most cost-effective methods to keep water and mud away from barns, run-in sheds and storage buildings. Be sure your contractor installs pipe drains at the end of every downspout. Splash guards are simply not enough to divert water away from the foundation.”

If you don’t have covered gutters, you’ll need to make sure you keep them clear of fallen leaves and other debris. Also, keep any drainage ditches clear so water doesn’t pool up. 

• Build swales or berms around turnouts and other areas. To divert runoff away from paddocks, driveways, outdoor arenas or other areas, consider building a system of berms (elevated rows of earth) and swales (shallow trenches). These earthworks can act like gutters to redirect water away from areas that get too muddy. Planting shrubs or trees along the berms and grass in the swales will help to stabilize the structures and absorb more water.

• Plant rain gardens. Rain gardens are shallow depressions filled with deep-rooted native plants—that can include shrubs, flowers and grasses—that catch and absorb excess storm water. These are often placed in low spots near the source of a runoff. Consider installing a rain garden anywhere you sometimes have large amounts of water flowing, such as by an open wash stall, along your driveway, under your gutters, or at the end of your berm-and-swale channel. (If your rain garden will ever be within reach of horses, be sure to choose nontoxic plants.)

• Install a catch basin. Another option for low spots where rainwater frequently pools is to have a contractor install a catch basin, an underground reservoir to collect rainwater and drain it through pipes into your sewer, septic system or another appropriate outlet. Catch basins are designed to capture debris before water reaches the sewer system, but they can also greatly improve your drainage. You’ve seen large commercial versions in parking lots and developments, but smaller catch basins, as little as two to three feet across, are suitable for homes and farms. 

Catch excess rain in a barrel or cistern. Runoff from gutters can be channeled into barrels or underground cisterns. Because of bird droppings and other pollutants on the roof, the water collected is not safe to drink (not even for animals), but you can use it to irrigate fields and water your lawn. 

As you plan any fix for rainwater problems on your property, keep potential legal issues in mind. If you reroute water that then ends up in your neighbor’s yard, you may create more than just resentment. Flooded basements, erosion and other property damage can be grounds for litigation, and if your actions are found to be the cause, you may be held liable. 

Stop the spills and leaks

Rain and melting ice and snow may be the primary contributors to your mud problems, but don’t overlook the role that water from your own plumbing can play:

• Fix leaky hoses, faucets and valves promptly. A dripping faucet might not seem like a big deal, but 10 drops per minute adds up to three liters of water per day, or 347 gallons per year. Addressing leaks as soon as you notice them will greatly reduce the amount of water pouring into the ground. Also purchase hose nozzles with shutoff valves so you can walk from bucket to bucket without dribbling water along the way.

• Turn off the hose. This sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left the hose running while filling buckets. I get involved in other things and before you know it, the trough is overflowing and my horse’s paddock is flooded. To eliminate that problem I now set a kitchen timer to remind me when it’s time to turn off the hose.

Consider installing automatic waterers. If your horses (and/or dogs) delight in splashing in the water troughs, chances are they’re spilling gallons of water over the sides, right into the high-traffic zone that’s also getting churned up by hooves. An automatic watering system can reduce water spillage and waste.

For cleaner, drier pastures

Horses’ hooves can be hard on pastures, especially in the spring when the snow is melting and the ground is soft. Here are some time-honored strategies to protect your fields.

• Employ rotational grazing. Left on their own in a large pasture, horses will tend to overgraze certain areas while leaving others untouched. By utilizing more, smaller pastures instead, horses will be encouraged to graze uniformly until they are moved to the next small pasture, giving the grazed spots time to recover before the horses are returned to that section (if they are returned at all to that pasture in the same growing season). If you don’t have multiple turnout fields, you can accomplish the same goal by erecting temporary fencing to partition off sections of your main pasture.

“A good pasture rotation plan goes a long way to eliminating mud in grass fields,” says Johnson. “We tend to think of pasture maintenance as a spring or summer concern, but it’s something we need to think about in every season—spring, summer, fall and, yes, even in winter.” Regular mowing, harrowing, weed removal and seeding, as needed, will also contribute to healthier pasture grasses. Your local extension agent can help you address any problems and advise you on the best practices in your climate and conditions.

• Avoid turnout in wet conditions. When soils are already getting saturated with water, any hoof traffic will only make the situation worse. “Keep horses off pastures, not only while you’re waiting for them to grow, but also during heavy rainfall periods,” says Mindy Hubert, a small acreage extension field specialist with South Dakota State University. “Anytime your horses trample muddy pastures, they severely damage grass and further compact the soil, which can prevent infiltration and negatively affect future pasture growth.”

• Invest in trees. Mature trees can draw 50 to 100 gallons of water out of the soil each day, and some species absorb even more. In addition, trees intercept rainfall—“catching” falling water that then evaporates from the leaves and branches—before it reaches the soil. Conifers, which retain their greenery year-round, can intercept between 25 and 45 percent of all the rain that falls on them in a year, according to studies done in England, but even trees that drop their leaves in winter intercept 10 to 25 percent of rainfall. If you’re going to plant trees in or around your pastures, be sure to avoid species (such as red maples and their crosses, female box elders and yews) that can be toxic to horses. As a bonus, your horses will enjoy the extra shade and shelter.

• Plant buffer strips or hedgerows. The British countryside is known for its hedgerows—closely spaced, intertwined shrubs, sometimes incorporating a stone wall or earthen berm—that line the borders of fields and roadways. Some date back to Medieval times. In addition to absorbing rainfall, these strips of “wild” provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. You can achieve a similar effect by planting a buffer zone of horse-safe native grasses, shrubs or small trees along the upland perimeter of your paddocks and fields. “Buffer strips using plants that are appropriate for your soils and climate can be planted downhill as well,” says Hubert, “where they’ll filter sediments before runoff enters surface water.” 

• Fence off ponds, streams and wetlands. Purchasing a property with a natural water source in the pasture might seem like a bonus, but it’s not a good idea to let horses have unrestricted access to them. They tend to congregate near these areas, and their hooves churn up the fragile ecosystems along the banks, creating permanent mud holes and erosion. “Riparian areas are particularly susceptible to overgrazing,” cautions Hubert.

• Pick up manure regularly. Cleaning up manure in turnout areas is always good horsekeeping, but it’s especially important to not let this chore slide in wet weather. “The more manure you remove from your paddocks and fields, the better,” says Hubert. Not only does manure contribute directly to the formation of mud, but it’s also an environmental hazard. “Water running through livestock pens and fields carries manure and urine to nearby creeks, streams and other surface water,” Hubert adds. “Nutrients and sediment in this runoff are a leading cause of nonpoint source water pollution.

Fix high traffic areas

No matter what measures you take to protect the rest of your pasture and paddocks, horses are always going to congregate in certain areas—such as around the feeders and troughs or in front of the run-in sheds—and no turf will be able to survive that much daily pressure and stress. “High traffic areas, especially those around water tanks and gates, get compacted due to hoof traffic,” says Hubert. “The compaction prevents water from infiltrating the soil.” You can address these problem areas with several strategies.

One relatively cheap and inexpensive solution is to lay some porous material—such as gravel, crushed stone or sand—over the muddy areas. These materials allow drainage of water away from the surface to help keep hooves cleaner and drier. But this is only a short-term option. The sand and gravel will eventually be churned in, and the mud will be at the surface again in only a season or two, maybe less.

To keep the footing material in place and lasting longer, you’ll need to install a more permanent base underneath of it. “We recommend digging out and removing the top organic layer of earth in these areas, then laying down a six- to eight-ounce nonwoven geotextile,” says Johnson. Geotextiles are water-permeable fabrics often used to stabilize and distribute the weight of the base layer under roads and other construction projects. They come in woven and nonwoven varieties, but Johnson recommends the nonwoven type in case it is ever exposed because the nonwoven material is less slippery. 

Additionally, the nonwoven geotextile fabrics have excellent filtration and drainage properties. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for installing the geotextile. Typically, this includes securing the material in place with some sort of stakes, which can be a safety concern around horses if not detailed properly. “Review, detailing and maintenance of the installation is key,” says Johnson.

“Once that’s down, you can spread an appropriate gravel or other footing that drains well. This system works well in small paddocks, around gates, paths to pastures, and even in round pens,” Johnson says, adding that “typically we review the footing options with the intended use and develop project-specific details and specifications so that the entire installation works as a system.” For a more durable pad, you can also put down a base layer of clean washed crushed stone, topped with a surface layer of finer gravel, sand or other footing material. Even with the geotextile in place, you may still need to add new surface material as needed. 

The steps you take to control water drainage and reduce the amount of mud on your farm will not only keep you and your horses happier and healthier, they will also improve the value of your property. “Controlling mud and water is one of the single most important things you can do to protect your investment in buildings, fences and turnout areas,” says Johnson. “[Mud control] is going to require a little bit of effort, but the rewards are high. You’ll enjoy your horses without the mess and preserve your fields and structures for the future.”

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